Updated: Jan 19, 2020
I was the second of five kids in my family (that's me on the left!), so by the time I got to college my parents had already set the tone of how they would help financially. They agreed to go 50/50 with us for four years of college. Need a fifth year to graduate? Grad school? You're on your own.
Overall, I didn't mind the 50/50 rule - it seemed pretty fair to me, but knowing that the current average time to graduate is six years I didn’t like the time restraint. It turned out that most students end up changing their major more than once after starting college, causing a significant delay of graduation and additional debt. I may not have liked my parent’s limits at the time, but now I see that the deadline helped me decide my major quickly, and, most importantly, stick with it.
Starting college, I purposely picked a state school where I knew I could graduate with low debt. Then I did what every average college student does and took out student loans to pay for my half of the split.
As a freshman living on campus with no car, I started hunting for student jobs that would give me a little extra spending money. My freshman year, I found a job working as a referee and scorekeeper for volleyball, dodgeball, and basketball. Soon after, I added a job in an academic office on campus. Neither of these jobs provided lots of hours or money, but they were on campus, provided a flexible schedule, and gave me extra cash so that I wouldn't have to pull more out of my almost nonexistent saving account.
I knew I needed to find a higher-paying job in order to put a dent in my college loans so I applied to be a Resident Assistant (RA) on my campus. Each college runs their RA program differently, but mine paid the equivalent of the cost to live in the residence halls. Basically, working in a residence hall paid for me to live there. This was a great on-campus job because, again, it provided flexible scheduling and was right on campus, so I still didn't have to worry about having a car. I worked as an RA my last three years in college and continued to work in the academic office. My RA job helped me pay for school and my office job allowed me to have some spending money. I also worked every summer at a summer camp, so I was able to pocket all that money to help pay for school.
By my junior year, I only had to take out half the loans as I had the previous two years because of the money I had made in my various jobs. The same held true for my senior year. By the time I graduated, I still had student debt, but only at about a third of the national average.
Paying off my student debt after college was hard. As is common, I set up a ten-year payment plan with a six-month grace period before payments. Those six months flew by! I worked several different jobs but I was barely able to meet my minimum payment each month. My parents were constantly having to "loan" me money to make my payments on time, which I would then sporadically pay back to them as I had an influx of cash. It took me four years to find a steady job where I was able to budget and pay my minimum payment off easily.
Five years after I graduated I accepted a job with a substantially higher paycheck and I immediately doubled my student loan payment. I finished paying off my car loan a few months later and combined that payment into my monthly loan payment, essentially quadrupling my monthly minimum. Doing this allowed me to cut down on the amount of interest and made it possible for me to completely pay off my students loans this past December. That's right, six and a half years after graduating college, and three and a half years ahead of schedule, I’m debt free.
My advice to parents is to have your student help pay for college in some way. Maybe it's 50/50 like my parents, maybe it’s covering the basics and having the student cover any "extras" they may want (nice apartment, car, trips, study abroad, etc.), or maybe there is a cost breakdown that is appropriate for you and your family. By splitting the college cost with me, my parents made me think carefully about where I wanted to go to school and how I was going to spend my time. I think this was an important life lesson for me as it encouraged me to live within my means and to work for what I wanted. I had to pay attention to things like budgeting, cost versus benefit analysis, long term effects, and sacrifice. It made me frugal but gave me the wisdom to splurge on things, if I saved for it. I think these life lessons are what has kept me from having to get a credit card and take on more debt because it taught me how to earn, save, and live off what I could afford.
Thank you, Mom and Dad. Thank you for the life lessons you taught me by not fully paying for my college degree. The lessons your decision gave me will stick with me longer than anything I learned in my economics class. Yes, it was tough sometimes, but I am a better person because of it.